What will sanctions mean for London's Russian oligarchs?

Some are said to fear having their assets frozen amid speculation that even Roman Abramovich could be affected

When David Cameron went on his first official visit to Moscow in September 2011, he made sure to take two dozen business leaders in a bid to drum up some trade for UK plc.

"Russia is resource-rich and services-light whereas Britain is the opposite," the prime minister said in a speech extolling the virtues of global trade.

Two and a half years on, his talk of sharing out the trade cake with Russia is a distant memory as Russian troops raise their flag over Crimean military bases and western leaders debate further sanctions against Vladimir Putin's government. UK-Russian trade programmes "are either going to be completely cancelled or scaled down", said Eugene Nivorozhkin, a lecturer at UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. "A lot of sanctions are going to take place by default," he said. "Projects that were profitable a month ago are no longer profitable."

On Tuesday the Department of Energy and Climate Change said it was reviewing a deal on nuclear co-operation with Rosatom, which would have opened UK doors for the Russian state nuclear firm. Meanwhile, a visit to Russia by Cameron's envoy to the country, the Conservative MP Harriett Baldwin, has been cancelled.

With the climate cooling by the day, what are the prospects for London's oligarchs? Some politicians have been openly speculating as to whether the sanctions shortlist could be further extended to take in some of London's best-known Russians, in particular the Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.

"At some stage, if the oligarchs aren't careful, they could end up with their assets here being frozen," said one City of London financier, who deals with wealthy Russian clients. "It is already stopping new money coming in and stopping the money here from being used. Some Russians are trying to get money out [of Europe] and into Singapore, which is the new Cyprus [formerly the banking centre favoured by wealthy Russians]. I don't think Putin is taking the threat of sanctions seriously, but the oligarchs are, particularly those close to Putin. There are some who are here because they are not close to Putin."

However, despite the visibility of some Russians in the capital, Cameron's 2011 sales patter did not turn Russia into a major destination for British exporters: German machine tools and French military aircraft are worth far more to Russia than British goods. In 2012 the UK sold $8bn of goods to Russia, but that compares with $14bn sold by France and is dwarfed by the $38bn from Germany.

Perhaps surprisingly, Russia is not even a big customer for the City of London's banks and law firms. The UK sold £1.2bn of banking advice and insurance to Russia in 2012: a big number, but only 1% of UK financial service exports, according to analysis by the Open Europe thinktank.

This figure includes the handsome fees paid to lawyers and bankers that help Russian companies float on the London stock exchange: 53 Russian companies have a listing on the main stockmarket here, including the state energy giant Gazprom and Russia's largest bank Sberbank. A further 15 Russian companies are listed on the smaller Alternative Investment Market. But Russian company listings peaked before the financial crisis. Data from Dealogic shows that 11 Russian companies gained a prestigious London listing in 2007; last year that had dwindled to just one – the bank and credit card company TCS, which raised $1bn when it floated in October. If the financial spigots of the City of London were turned off, it would be Russia that has the most to lose: since 2002 Russian companies have raised $406bn on London's capital markets. While these loans and bonds generate healthy interest rates for the international banks headquartered in London, few think the City would struggle without them.

Raoul Ruparel, head of economic research at Open Europe, said: "While here are certain firms and sectors linked closely to Russia, I think in the broad sense the pinch wouldn't be huge and the City would be able to adjust and find business elsewhere." The furore over a line in an official document about the UK's intention to keep the City open to Russia overstates Russia's importance, he said.

The UK has provided one of the "most hawkish" voices on sanctions in Europe. "Whether some lawyers and business advisers are not generating fees is not going to be high up on Europe's agenda on the sanctions. It will be more 'where is Finland going to get 100% of its energy from?'"

The impact on London's overheated property market is also likely to be muted. Russians account for 2% of the prime London luxury market, according to the upmarket estate agents Savills. While political turmoil could make London's townhouses an even more attractive safe haven for wealthy Russians and Ukrainians, a spokesperson said: "We've seen no real change and nor do we expect any."

Another City financier, who has been involved in deals conducted by some of London's most high-profile Russian oligarchs, said: "I don't think there was lots of Russian money deposited here. Russians will not necessarily use London banks when Switzerland is good for that. Russian family offices [that manage private Russian wealth from London] will be moving money out, but that would have been done immediately. Property, which a lot of Russians do have in London, is less liquid.

"I don't think they [rich Russians in London] are particularly freaking out, as they had already put money where it couldn't be got at. Anyway, their view is that the UK, Germany and France will not do anything on sanctions that will be particularly nasty. Is Abramovich worried he's going to be goose-stepped out of his London home? No."


Jennifer Rankin and Simon Goodley

The GuardianTramp

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